Words On Birds by Steve Grinley
Excellent Shorebird Viewing in Our Area
August 01, 2020
By Steve Grinley
Last week I talked about how the shorebird migration is underway in our area. Late July and August is the peak migration time for shorebirds heading south along the Massachusetts coast. Some of the best shorebirding in the Northeast can be found right here in Essex County. I thought I would give you some pointers on viewing shorebirds this season.
The Great Marsh provides thousands of acres of tidal marshes and flats, stretching from Salisbury and Newburyport Harbor to the Parker River and its estuaries in Newbury and Rowley and to the coastal marshes of Ipswich and Essex. This area is an oasis for tired, hungry shorebirds. They stop to rest and feed on the crustacean rich mud flats and salt pans.
The best time to watch shorebirds along the rivers and harbor is when the tide is ebbing or, better still, with the incoming tide as the birds move closer to you as you watch. About one or two hours before or after low tide is a good rule of thumb. Dead low tide generally has the birds too dispersed or too far out on the mud flats for you to see well.
The best vantage points for Newburyport harbor are from the seawall at Joppa Park on Water Street or from the Massachusetts Audubon Joppa Flats Center property that, unfortunately, is currently closed. Greater and lesser yellowlegs, black-bellied and semipalmated plovers, least and semipalmated sandpipers, short and long billed dowitchers are all common migrants that frequent the harbor mud flats in migration. Hudsonian or marbled godwits and other less common shorebirds may also be found there in the weeks ahead.
At high tide, the shorebirds move to salt pan areas, shallow pools of water amid the tidal marshes. On the mainland, you can check the pans along Newman Road in Newbury and along Rt 1A Rowley near the Rowley River and Tendercrop Farm. Also in Rowley are the pans along Patmos Road to Sawyers Island or Stackyard Road toward Nelson’s Island. The flats along Jeffrey’s Neck Rd toward Great Neck in Ipswich should be checked as well as Island Road and Comono Point in Essex.
Areas along either side of the Plum Island Turnpike are good places to scan for shorebirds during high tide. On the Parker River Refuge on Plum Island, salt pans are scattered throughout the marsh all along the west side of the road. These can be especially good spots to get closer views of white-rumped and Western sandpipers and an occasional Wilson’s phalarope.
The Bill Forward Pool behind the Hellcat Swamp nature trail on the refuge has a lower water level this year and is already attracting numbers of shorebirds during high tide. Many dowitchers, several stilt and pectoral sandpipers, and knots and have been seen there in the past couple of weeks. An added bonus to the Bill Forward Pool is the collection of herons, egrets and ibis that stop and feed there, especially in the early morning or evening.
Further south on the refuge is Stage Island Pool where more shorebirds collect when the water level is low enough to expose the mud flats. The water level in this pool has been lowered, perhaps too much such that the shorebirds are usually very distant from the Platform on Stage Island or from the Tower at lot 7. Stage Island Pool has historically been an excellent spot to view Baird’s, buff-breasted, and stilt sandpipers.
Looking out toward Emerson Rocks from the Lot 7 boardwalk (presently closed), or a walk out to the beach at Sandy Point at the southern tip of the island may turn up a piping plover in the sand or black-bellied plovers and sanderlings along the water’s edge. Check roosting shorebirds in the wrackline for western, buff-breasted or even rare curlew sandpipers.
Wherever you choose to look at shorebirds, be sure to bring your binoculars and a spotting scope if you have one. Binoculars help, but a scope provides higher magnification to help bring the birds close enough for easier identification. A good field guide will help you differentiate the many species. There are usually large numbers of these birds in our area for the next four to six weeks which increases the chances of getting good views of shorebirds.